The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

The ‘Right People’ in Government Won’t Save Us

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo arrives to a vaccination site in Brooklyn, N.Y., February 22, 2021. (Seth Wenig/Reuters)

On the menu today: As Andrew Cuomo admits to “unwanted flirtation” and various media institutions begin to realize that Cuomo’s record on the pandemic isn’t as great as the hype suggested — and that the story in most European countries is the same — Ross Douthat contends that this reflects the media yearning for a heroic figure who “Got the Pandemic Right.” I would point out that it reflects a separate, broader belief: that when a crisis hits, the “right people” in government will save us. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that state policy decisions really altered the outcomes of the pandemic as much as everyone hoped.

The Need to Believe in Government

Ross Douthat’s whole Sunday column is good, but I feel like there’s still a little meat left on the bone in the final paragraphs:

. . . the press was not wrong to desire heroic leaders or institutions that Got the Pandemic Right. The attempt to wish those leaders and institutions into being is a media failure, but the fact that the media looked for them is not.

Our society’s sickness may be particularly acute in Trump worship, but the affliction is more general. The stink of failure hangs over the liberal and cosmopolitan as well the populist and provincial, the “Cuomosexual” parts of the media as well the conservative. And as we hopefully approach the end of this particular emergency, it’s not only Trump’s enablers but a much wider range of leaders and authorities who should feel shame at the stark and shocking number of the dead.

Why did the media feel such an intense need to find and celebrate “heroic leaders or institutions that Got the Pandemic Right”?

Was it just because they hated Trump and needed a contrast for Goofus-and-Gallant stories of good and wise Democratic leaders and bad and reckless Republican leaders? Was it that from the beginning, they envisioned a tale of Trump bumbling his way through the pandemic, followed by a Democratic president who swooped in and fixed it?

Or did the glowing coverage of Cuomo (and Gretchen Whitmer, and Phil Murphy, and Gavin Newsom) demonstrate that a lot of people need to believe that the right leaders in government can fix giant and unexpected problems such as a novel virus that triggered a global pandemic? That they’re so unnerved by the unknown that they gravitate to a voice that sounds certain and confident, even if that voice is as flawed and befuddled as the rest of us?

The moment people realized they were dealing with something new and frightening in the pandemic in early 2020, they hungered for leadership. Some people turned to Anthony Fauci with a reverence sometimes bordering on religious. Those who were convinced that it couldn’t be that bad, and that everyone was overhyping the threat, turned to the likes of Alex Berenson. Everybody wanted to find their expert who really understood everything that was going on and knew what to do and had all the answers.

Over the past year, I’ve been pretty darn critical of elected leaders at a bunch of levels — former President Trump, Bill de Blasio, Cuomo, Whitmer, and all the idiot governors and mayors who broke their own quarantine rules. I’ve pointed out that the media don’t just overpraise Democratic governors; they overpraise the wrong ones. There is a lot to criticize in the federal-, state-, and local-government responses to the pandemic.

But a lot of evidence also suggests that a nation’s or state’s success in preventing coronavirus deaths had a lot to do with geography, population density, poverty, mass-transit usage, preexisting health problems, and other factors that government really can’t control. Policy choices probably have some effect, but most likely less effect than impassioned supporters and critics think. If sweeping lockdowns worked as well as their supporters believed, shouldn’t California be doing much better at preventing cases and deaths? By one measure, the state with the fewest COVID-19 restrictions was Oklahoma. The state ranks eighth in the country in cases per million residents and 36th in the country in deaths per million residents. That same study ranked California the most heavily restricted state in the country; the Golden State is ranked 26th in the country in cases per million residents and 30th in deaths per million residents.

A few weeks ago, The Economist pointed out that despite dramatically different policies, California and Texas are generating similar results:

Despite their contrasting approaches, the results have not been as different as expected. Texas has a higher death rate per person — only Arizona and South Carolina have fared worse, according to the CDC. But the gap is not as great as you might expect: Texas has had 127 deaths per 100,000 compared with 104 per 100,000 in California. “People in California are frustrated because they feel like they are experiencing the worst of both worlds,” says Ken Miller of Claremont McKenna college and author of the book “Texas vs California”. They have endured never-ending lockdowns, and yet deaths are currently higher than ever. Meanwhile, in Texas, the economic benefits of a more libertarian approach are hard to discern. The unemployment rate in both states is higher than the national average.

(The Economist is being a little cute with the numbers there. The most recent national unemployment rate is 6.3 percent, the most recent Texas unemployment rate is 7.2 percent, and the most recent California unemployment rate is 9 percent — and it increased nine-tenths of one percentage point in December. Texas’s unemployment rate is closer to the national average than California’s rate is to Texas’s rate.)

If you really want to terrify a political junkie or health-policy wonk, tell them that all of the policy decisions they’ve been arguing about for the past year didn’t matter that much, and government-imposed quarantine restrictions only had a modest effect on the pandemic’s outcomes.

By the time most policymakers got their heads around what the country was facing, the virus had already spread pretty far and wide. I went back and checked; one year ago Saturday, Japan announced it was closing schools for a month, Hong Kong closed schools for two months, and Saudi Arabia halted travel to Mecca. No government makes decisions like that unless it’s convinced it is facing an epic crisis with few precedents.

Looking back, the denial and naïveté in the U.S. in January and February 2020 were tragically laughable — exacerbated by a president who kept insisting “We have it totally under control” and by a national media eager to argue that the flu was more dangerous, and who also worried that the “Wuhan flu” was xenophobia. The biggest public-health threat in a century was bearing down on us, and plenty of big names on both sides of the aisle were eager to play the role of the mayor of Amity Island.

By January 16, 2020, COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in Thailand and Japan, the virus was spreading from any number of the numerous flights out of Wuhan, and the limited window to stop a worldwide pandemic had closed. Direct flights from Wuhan to the United States did not stop until January 23. From December until the ban on incoming flights from Wuhan, 27 of those direct flights went to San Francisco and 23 to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

If you look at the countries with the fewest deaths per million citizens — or at least those among them whose publicly disclosed figures are reasonably trustworthy — it becomes clear that the best way to protect against the virus is to be an island and to greatly restrict who can enter your country. Taiwan has four-tenths of one for every million people. Fiji has two. New Zealand has five. (China would have us believe they have just three deaths for every million people.)

As of this writing, the U.S. ranks tenth worst in the world with 1,579 deaths per million people, behind Belgium, the Czech Republic, Italy, the United Kingdom, and a few others. (It is worth noting that places that had a bad outbreak and have a tiny population, such as Gibraltar and San Marino, can end up topping the list by this measurement.)

The quarantine methods that worked for small island nations just wouldn’t work for the United States, which has two relatively open borders, many port cities with huge amounts of international trade and shipping, and lots of international air travel — to say nothing of a population that is used to moving freely and enormous amounts of goods that need to be shipped around the country.

Once the pandemic hit, the way to keep your population safest was to keep them at home, and not coming within six feet of any other people, indefinitely. If we were all programmable and obedient robots, that plan would have worked. But we’re human beings who need to connect with others — socially, emotionally, economically. The best answer for human beings was probably to figure out how to interact and connect in ways that minimized the risk of transmission — wear masks, be outdoors, make sure there’s lots of air circulation. But that’s a messy, imprecise, imperfect answer, and our culture can’t handle nuance anymore.

When people are facing something that frightens them, they want a leader, and they may not-so-secretly want a savior figure. Think of all of those prayer candles featuring political figures. A lot of politicians sell themselves to the public as savior figures anyway. (“I alone can fix it.”)

Life throws a lot of problems at us that we have no real control over — earthquakes, hurricanes, heat waves, viruses — and those are the natural disasters; we’re not even getting into manmade disasters such as terrorist attacks, wars, waves of refugees, hackers, the violence of transnational criminal organizations, human trafficking, etc. We establish government to protect our rights and to give us some tools for collective action against problems too big for any one person to fix. You might be a genius or fabulously wealthy or immensely talented, but when a hurricane levels your community, you’re going to need some help from FEMA and the National Guard and the Red Cross.

But there are significant limits to the effectiveness of government, at all levels. And while government can often mitigate the damage of those terrible events in some ways, it can rarely prevent them. We still live in a fallen world, and every once in a while, something terrible is going to come our way — and all of our expertise, all of our riches, all of our tools and technology will not be able to insulate us from hardship and pain.

Particularly for people who think about (and write about) politics a lot, there is an intense belief that every disaster that befalls us must be, on some level, a policy failure. We can improve our construction codes, but an intense enough earthquake or hurricane or flood is still going to do a lot of damage. We can try to avoid war, but sometimes somebody’s going to fly airplanes into our skyscrapers and start one with us. We can be the country best prepared for a pandemic — but if a new virus is contagious enough and gets into our population undetected, we’re going to be playing catch-up until a sufficient number of people are vaccinated.

A lot of people act as if they believe, “If we just elect the right people, then bad things won’t happen in our lives.” And if bad things are happening in our lives, it must be because we elected the wrong people. The other party doesn’t just disagree with us on the right ideas; it prevents the utopia that our guys could easily enact if its guys would just get out of the way.

The Biden administration had a vision of a smooth rollout of rapidly expanding vaccinations, and then a really bad gust of winter weather over most of the country loused that up. (The good news is the last three days have been terrific, with more than 2 million people vaccinated each day.) The old saying, “no plan survives contact with the enemy” applies to all government plans, as well.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it Friday, a bit of optimism from me, allegedly a notorious doomsayer regarding the pandemic: Slowly, bit by bit, normal life is returning.

(With 525,000 Americans dead from this pandemic, am I still a doomsayer? Are any of those guys who said “herd immunity is just around the corner” all summer and autumn long lining up to offer public apologies yet?)

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